I call Merida a “magical” city. In reality, this vibrant capital of the of the Mexican state of Yucatan is known as the “White City,” because of its buildings made of white stone and its cleanliness. I quickly fell in love with both, along with the rich Mayan culture and history; colonial heritage; and wonderful people.
I discovered Merida as many have, through HGTV’s International House Hunters. It’s no wonder HGTV has taped so many segments there. It does not take long to lose your heart to the cosmopolitan charm and Mayan magic of this true urban oasis.
After researching Merida over the years and becoming more intrigued, my partner and I finally planned a visit in 2018. We were looking for an affordable, safe, colorful place to retire to part time. It also had to have excellent affordable healthcare for pre-existing conditions.
The Merida International airport is beautiful and a breeze to navigate. The suburban sights leaving the airport looked reminiscent of many parts of South Florida. The deeper we got into Centro, the historic heart of the city where we were staying, we began to realize we were far from home.
The look on my partner’s face said, “I’m glad you talked me into coming — just don’t ask me to come again.” He’d been nervous about traveling to Mexico. He was not impressed with the crumbling buildings, buckled sidewalk, or rickety busses whizzing by.
There were moments I too wondered if I would ever watch House Hunters again. I was just as dismayed by the makeshift businesses, abandoned ruins and junkyards here and there; the wires hanging from buildings; and the bars and gates in front of most of the windows and doors. It took me some time to also notice the incredible beauty in between.
A couple of days into our visit, Brian tripped on one of the aforementioned sidewalks after leaving a green market. He broke his wrist, tore his rotator cuff and smashed his nose. We wanted to explore the health care scene — but not like this.
Our trip to the ER, however, allowed us to see yet another side of Merida. We were admitted without having to sign our life away and leave three credit cards. I’m not even sure they asked for our names before immediately rushing Brian in to be cared for with me by his side.
In all fairness Mexican law does not allow you to leave the hospital until you settle your payment with either insurance, or cash or credit card. Fortunately, the bill for x-rays, consultation with a surgeon (who also did the cast along with an assistant) and follow-up care was only $145 USD. The surgeon even gave us his cell number in case the cast proved to be an issue with customs.
We quickly learned that, while Merida is the financial and cultural capital of the region — and sophisticated its own way, it also is a place where doctors still make house calls, and cantinas truly treat you like you are a guest in their home.
It is a place where utility bills are stuck in your door because there is no daily mail, and where you leave your garbage in a plastic bag on the sidewalk outside your door at night. It's picked up like clockwork. You walk a lot and become used to seeing festivals of all kinds popping up in the streets, with families of all ages in attendance.
Merida is not polished; perhaps that’s part of its charm. It’s not perfect and doesn’t pretend to be. There isn’t a Walgreens and Chase bank on every corner. It’s the kind of place my soul needed after the last decade in the capitalism and conspiracy theories of the other place I call home.
I found many things in Merida that went beyond the obvious. I learned that I could follow my dream of discovering another place to also call home without knowing the language and the lay of the land. That actually made it more fun.
Things that might have — would have — made me experience a meltdown years ago were different now. Merida helped me to see just how much I’ve changed during the last few years spent as a result of my commitment to go deeper.
I was recently told that the Temporary Resident cards we worked so hard to get may no longer be valid when we return at the end of this month for the first time since before the pandemic. We won’t learn until we talk to customs at the Merida airport, and they may tell us we have to start over. With pandemic and cancer — my own and my partner’s, both in 2020 — mostly in the rearview mirror, it just doesn’t seem like something worth becoming too excited about.
Fortunately, Merida helped me in my ongoing personal need to move slower, to get out of my comfort zone more, and to become more patient. Whenever I was more tolerant of the customs and people of the country I was visiting and making plans to live in part-time, I became acutely aware of how I hadn’t always treated the people I’d left behind with the same kind of tolerance.
Still, many of the questionable changes happening in Merida are the result of U.S. expats who think it should be just like where they left. The Mayan people welcome them all the same.
Best of all, this adventure with its many challenges and celebrations made me realize that my partner and I are closer than we’ve ever been. We’ve had to be there with and for each other during the move and subsequent health challenges in ways we never expected or imagined. It’s made us stronger together and apart. I could call any place “home” with Brian.
Even though we will always have a very strong presence in South Florida to help with my mother’s care and to be close to other family and friends, I also have to follow my heart wherever it leads. As the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo says: “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”
We all need to fly, whether it’s purchasing a retirement home in a faraway land or changing the same route you take to the office every day. We need to see past our own crumbling walls from time to time to find the magic that is often hidden behind.
P.S. — Here's a gallery of a few of my favorite things in Merida.